Growing up, I was fortunate to live in a family where whilst we weren’t profuse with money, we also didn’t generally struggle to eat. There were periods that were harder, as with all households, but mostly we were comfortable. We didn’t go on holidays or do many extravagant things, but we had a huge house with an even bigger garden.
Then I got to university, and I spent a couple of years very manic. Those years completely obliterated me financially. I defaulted on several bank accounts and credit cards, after chewing through the entirety of my student loans by drinking too much and eating a frankly obscene amount of curly fries from the university bar.
The years after that, I tried to stay living in the same city, but the finality of my mental breakdown meant that I was living on benefits. And I was appealing those benefits, so I was on the minimum amount you can get paid whilst waiting for a result.
I learned different lessons about money in those years; how to make a meal that cost 50 pence. How to feel guilty about every single purchase. Most of all, how to struggle with accepting help.
You see, I don’t talk about money.
It’s what we did growing up, and it’s what I continued to do in adulthood, even in the years where I was obliterating my credit. The first time I had to talk about it was when I was defaulting, and even then I talked only to my mum and my financial advisor – no one else. My mum made all of the phone calls for me, because I couldn’t do it myself.
And I kept on that way, not talking about it, going quiet whenever any of my friends – who were all working in ‘real jobs’, earning money in amounts that I could barely imagine – would mention money. It’s worth noting that to me, an amount that I could barely imagine? Was minimum wage. The idea of earning that much overwhelmed me.
But in those years, I also had to learn to handle money properly again. Because I wasn’t allowed an overdraft or a credit card anymore, and so the benefits I got were all that I had. And I did learn, quickly and well, getting to a point where I could live acceptably within my means most of the time. If I wanted or needed something bigger, I’d find a way to earn cash for it, through housesitting or similar.
But I still wasn’t actually talking about it.
I’m far from the only person who does this, I know that. I’m sure many people have to work through a childhood of never talking about money and turn that into a functional adulthood. That’s partly why I’m writing this – to call out to those of you who have had this same experience and say ‘hey, me too!’.
So fast forward a few years. I’m okayish with money now, though it still terrifies me, and I can’t spend more than £10 on basically anything without wanting to vomit. My partner and I are living together, actually in our own place rather than with family. For two years, we live together without talking about money much at all.
We do sometimes, when it’s absolutely necessary. But mostly, I pay for the food out of my benefits, and he pays for all the other things. The things I don’t want to see, because the numbers are too scary – like the rent. I have a vague notion of how much this is, and the council tax, and the energy bills, and so forth. But he valiantly protects me from the numbers that terrify me.
Only…this doesn’t help.
Because we’re actually pretty comfortable now. We can have meals that cost more than 50 pence a portion. We can afford to go to places, and eat out, and do other things that make me horrified. (You want to get takeaway? ONE TAKEAWAY COSTS AS MUCH AS OUR ENTIRE WEEKLY FOOD BUDGET!).
Only I can’t, because I’m too afraid of the numbers involved. Every time my meagre income doesn’t cover things, I have to ask him to send me money. Every time I have to do that, I agonise over it for hours and often have panic attacks. It’s my fault. I’m terrible with money.
So another couple of years onwards, we now own a house. We have a car, we have expensive computers that we took out on a loan, and I’m still sitting here with my £350/month benefits income paying for the food shopping and a few bills and not much else. When we need to make a bigger purchase (one over £10), I literally walk away from the checkout and leave my partner paying so I don’t hear the total. Sometimes I don’t walk away fast enough, and I feel sick for the rest of the day.
But we have to make decisions as a couple about things we want to do or not do. My non-involvement…isn’t really tenable. So this past weekend, I faced the thing that has terrified me in the background, constantly, for years. I looked at our budget. At the giant numbers – the budget has our mortgage in (not a small number), our car loan (also not small), our computers (of which mine was a gift so I never knew how much it cost before).
I spent an hour crying whilst learning to understand the budget.
My partner, patient as ever, held my hand and took me through how it all works. He – now we – uses You Need a Budget, which I would definitely recommend because its UI is lovely. I just wouldn’t recommend connecting it to accounts (which you can’t do outside the US anyway), because it’s not incredibly secure.
All of it makes sense, and I can see how it’s going to help me better imagine our money. How it could help me learn that spending money is not evil, and that we are in fact in a very comfortable and privileged place, even having only one proper income. I just have to stop thinking of our income as my paltry sum, and instead as what we earn together. So nothing big, right?
An hour later we’ve gone through it all, and I feel like I’ve run a marathon, but I’ve done it. There’s nothing else to do until the next time I spend or earn money, so I close it and put it aside until payday, the next financial event.
Then the next day, I have a panic attack.
It’s not a bad one. As I’ve gotten better at identifying and dealing with panic attacks, they’ve gotten a lot less explosive. I have quiet panic attacks now, the kind you can have without bothering anyone else. Without anyone else noticing. The awfulness inherent in that is a whole other post worth of stuff, but for now let’s just say that I had such a panic attack.
I couldn’t work out why, though. I had been talking about how we needed to buy new bins for the kitchen, and how I could move money around to do it. But a panic attack based on that seemed out of the blue even for me. Then I remembered the budget, and the numbers, and suddenly it all made sense.
Because when you’re facing as pervasive and overwhelming a fear as this, it isn’t just scary in the moment. It’s scary theoretically in the space around those moments. And I know that in order to get rid of the stress that finances cause me, I’ve got to face down a lot more stress first.
But I’ve started – and that’s the most important thing.